Boris Johnson: A case study in presenteeism

The prime minister sent out an unfortunate message when he tried to run the country from his hospital bed.

by Natasha Abramson
Last Updated: 13 May 2020

At a time when the conversation about mental health at work is starting to gain traction, and when respect for employees’ need to switch off is becoming acknowledged, it is disappointing that the Prime Minister, although most likely well-intentioned, did not lead the way in respecting his own health when it comes to work. 

When I first heard news that the PM was in hospital, but that his role had not been immediately deputised, I was extremely disappointed. On his first day back, the now-recovered PM stood at the podium for his coronavirus briefing, and said how important it was that we take care of our health - including our mental health - but that message seemed undermined by his own example.  

Many people think we are now past the age where managers expect employees to work like machines, but I don’t think that is completely true. When the PM first began isolating, he continued to work from home, and with mild symptoms nobody could really blame him - he has a rather important job, after all.  

But, after isolating for more than ten days, and after widespread reports that he wasn’t as well as he was letting on, the Prime Minister missed an opportunity to lead by example and show workers and employers across the nation that it’s okay to look after yourself. 

Presenteeism is counterproductive, and it can happen at any level of seniority. How can you lead a country well when you aren’t well yourself? Perhaps this didn’t occur to Johnson, or perhaps more likely he believed it was more important to show everyone that the captain was still at the helm. 

But even there, you find another fallacy, that leadership requires the continued presence of a leader, which is based on the assumption that all will fall apart when they are absent.   

In the end, the decision was taken away from Johnson by medical realities. He had to step back and trust his team while he was in intensive care. The continued visibility of his cabinet members in daily briefings even after the PM’s recovery is perhaps a sign that he’s at least learned this lesson, that even a leader of nations can’t be expected to do everything.

Image credit: Chris J Ratcliffe /Getty Images

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